How can multiple access technologies (4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, fixed line) be used together to deliver a resilient, optimised and consistent experience of network quality and coverage? An introduction to the landscape, opportunities and challenges in providing a single user experience across multiple networks.
Operators need to adapt to the changing connectivity demands post-COVID19
The global dependency on consistent high-performance connectivity has recently come to the fore as the COVID-19 outbreak has transformed many of the remaining non-digital tasks into online activities.
The typical patterns of networking have broken and a ‘new normal’, albeit possibly a somewhat transitory one, is emerging. The recovery of the global economy will depend on governments, healthcare providers, businesses and their employees robustly communicating and gaining uninhibited access to content and cloud through their service providers – at any time of day, from any location and on any device.
Reliable connectivity is a critical commodity. Network usage patterns have shifted more towards the home and remote working. Locations which were previously light-usage now have high demands. Conversely, many business locations no longer need such high capacity. Utilisation is not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 patterns either, as people and businesses adapt to new daily routines – at least for some time.
The strategies with which telcos started the year have of course been disrupted with resources diverted away from strategic objectives to deal with a new mandate – keep the country connected. In the short-term, the focus has shifted to one which is more tactical – ensuring customer satisfaction through a reliable and adaptable service with rapid response to issues. In the long-term, however, the objectives for capacity and coverage remain. Telcos are still required to reach national targets for a minimum connection quality in rural areas, whilst delivering high bandwidth service demands in hotspot locations (although these hotspot locations might now change).
Of course, modern networks are designed with scalability and adaptability in mind – some recent deployments from new disruptors (such as Rakuten) demonstrate the power of virtualisation and automation in that process, particularly when it comes to the radio access network (RAN). In many legacy networks, however, one area which is not able to adapt fast enough is the physical access. Limits on spectrum, coverage (indoors and outdoors) and the speed at which physical infrastructure can be installed or updated become a bottleneck in the adaptation process. New initiatives to meet home working demand through an accelerated fibre rollout are happening, but they tend to come at great cost.
Network convergence is a concept which can provide a quick and convenient way to address this need for improved coverage, speed and reliability in the access network, without the need to install or upgrade last mile infrastructure. By definition, it is the coming-together of multiple network assets, as part of a transformation to one intelligent network which can efficiently provide customers with a single, unified, high-quality experience at any time, in any place.
It has already attracted interest and is finding an initial following. A few telcos have used it to provide better home broadband. Internet content and cloud service providers are interested, as it adds resilience to the mobile user experience, and enterprises are interested in utilising multiple lower cost commodity backhauls – the combination of which benefits from inherent protection against costly network outages.
Network convergence helps create an adaptable and resilient last mile
Most telcos already have the facility to connect with their customers via multiple means; providing mobile, fixed line and public Wi-Fi connectivity to those in their coverage footprint. The strategy has been to convert individual ‘pure’ mobile or fixed customers into households. The expectation is that this creates revenue increase through bundling and loyalty whilst bringing some added friction into the ability to churn – a concept which has been termed ‘convergence’. Although the customer may see one converged telco through brand, billing and customer support, the delivery of a consistent user experience across all modes of network access has been lacking and awkward. In the end, it is customer dissatisfaction which drives churn, so delivering a consistent user experience is important.
Convergence is a term used to mean many different things, from a single bill for all household connectivity, to modernising multiple core networks into a single efficient core. While most telcos have so far been concentrating on increasing operational efficiency, increasing customer loyalty/NPS and decreasing churn through some initial aspects of convergence, some are now looking into network convergence – where multiple access technologies (4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, fixed line) can be used together to deliver a resilient, optimised and consistent network quality and coverage.
Overview of convergence
Source: STL Partners
As an overarching concept, network convergence introduces more flexibility into the access layer. It allows a single converged core network to utilise and aggregate whichever last mile connectivity options are most suited to the environment. Some examples are:
- Hybrid Access: DSL and 4G macro network used together to provide extra speed and fallback reliability in hybrid fixed/mobile home gateways.
- Cell Densification: 5G and Wi-Fi small cells jointly providing short range capacity to augment the macro network in dense urban areas.
- Fixed Wireless Access: using cellular as a fibre alternative in challenging areas.
The ability to combine various network accesses is attractive as an option for improving adaptability, resilience and speed. Strategically, putting such flexibility in place can support future growth and customer retention with the added advantage of improving operational efficiency. Tactically, it enables an ability to quickly adapt resources to short-term changes in demand. COVID-19 has been a clear example of this need.
- Executive Summary
- Convergence and network convergence
- Near-term benefits of network convergence
- Strategic benefits of network convergence
- Balancing the benefits of convergence and divergence
- A three-step plan
- The changing environment
- Network convergence: The adaptable and resilient last mile
- Anticipated benefits to telcos
- Challenges and opposing forces
- The evolution to network convergence
- Everyone is combining networks
- Converging telco networks
- Telco adoption so far
- Strategy, tactics and hurdles
- The time is right for adaptability
- Tactical motivators
- Increasing the relationship with the customer
- Modernisation and efficiency – remaining competitive
- Hurdles from within the telco ecosystem
- Risk or opportunity? Innovation above-the-core
- A three-step plan